Films are a big part of our lives. They’re a portal to other cultures, a tool for the learning of other languages and pieces of art in their own right, serving as inspiration for other creative endeavours, the sparking point for a debate or just something to appreciate. There is nothing quite like watching a film to put a person in someone else’s position, to explain something from a different perspective.
The culture a film comes from has a massive effect on the style, naturally, because our culture has such a huge impact on our perspective. This means that a Western film will employ certain tropes and styles that are understood by people from Western countries, normally heavily influenced by American values. That’s why when you watch a western film the sex scene will show nothing other than the people climbing on and falling off, normally still partially dressed to preserve their dignity. There are exceptions of course, but the majority of the time there is no physical reality to the scene and it is difficult to believe that the people involved even know what sex is. Similarly, the leads in films will tend to follow the American ideal of beauty, and the addition of somebody who looks drastically different, possibly a disabled person or a fat person or a person with glasses, will only be added as a comic relief character where the entire joke is that the person isn’t ‘normal’.
Watching an English film can be more interesting, there is a theme of ‘grittiness’ in most of them as if we still all live in the nineties, and there is always the wonderful British attitude of negativity. The country is terrible, we all hate the government. English films always feel cheap, even when they obviously aren’t and if they aren’t being self-deprecating they’re relaying some event from history in a vague attempt at keeping us all in with the monarchy.
But the problem with all types of Western film is that I don’t like Western culture. Capitalism bores me, people bore me, I can’t stand American culture and I refuse to bow down to the dogma and conventions that everyone seems desperate to force me into. As contrived as it sounds, I’m bored of people trying to label me.
So instead, I turn to the disgustingly named ‘foreign film section.’ Not because they’re better, but because they’re refreshing after spending 22 years stuck in this narrative. There are wonderful films from Germany, Russia, France, Spain but for a film that’s really special, the best place to go is Asia, by which I mean South East Asia. Countries such as South Korea, China, Japan and Thailand.
The easiest way of introducing yourself to cinema from this part of the world is Japanese cinema. Japanese films tend to have an over-the-top style to them, various shades of real-life anime is the best way to describe it. To watch a Japanese film it is necessary to suspend disbelief more than you might do for an equivalent 'realist' American film.
1 1. Battle Royale
This was the first film I ever watched in another language and it holds a very special place in my heart. From a linguistical point of view, the age of the characters prevents the dialogue from being too complicated and is a great springboard for starting an education in Japanese. From a thematic point of view it has everything that a film traditionally needs: Action, strong relationships between characters, a hero and a villain. But it also provides an interesting starting point for understanding Japanese film tropes. The way that the bad guy is presented is typical, cast in black with mad hair and with over-the-top actions. He’s cast in shadows and he never speaks, needless to say he’s by far the coolest character in the film and takes a sick, tangible pleasure in the murder of his victims. Two other important themes are introduced to the newbie film watcher during this film. Firstly, the idea that children are out of control. This can be seen over and over again in Japanese films, the war between ‘grown-ups’ and kids is repeated in numerous examples, a simple metaphor for change vs stability, modernity vs tradition. Secondly is the important war between good and evil, within the characters themselves as well as within the story as a whole. Character tropes play heavily off the ideas of chaotic good and chaotic evil, rather than focussing on characters as entirely good or entirely bad. Within the film there are few characters who could be considered wholly on one end of the spectrum or another, but rather depth is added to individuals by forcing them into situations where alternate sides of their personality can come out, such as Nanahara’s treatment of Oki and the treatment of Nakagawa by Kitano in the climax of the film.
2. 2. Death Note
A film, derived from manga, much further down the real-life anime scale with the good/evil war even placed even more prominently in the foreground. Stylistically it can’t be beaten and the characters are portrayed with exquisite detail – what can be better than a detective who stirs his sugar-filled tea with a lollypop he can only hold using the very tips of his fingers. Even better than that, it’s based on a fantastic premise with deep philosophical implications, the idea that a person could be killed with just their name, but it can be watched with whatever degree of thought power is preferential at the time. The main story is split into two films, but there’s a third instalment based on one of the main characters, L, that expands on their basis.
3. 3. Old Boy
A man trying to find out why he’s been imprisoned in a room for 15 years, featuring the coolest wardrobe in cinema. It is a gentle introduction into the Korean humour that underlies all Korean cinema, a type of humour based on absurdity that is easier to get used to from more serious films such as this one, before delving into the stranger examples like The Host or Save the Green Planet. Another important thing to note from Old Boy is the real attention to detail that goes into music in films from this part of the world. There’s none of that generic music that plays over every single pseudo emotional moment in an American film, or any rehashing of that one theme that plays over every single establishing shot, but rather there is real emotional intensity caught up within the music that appears to have been actually made for moment it’s depicting, and it has the same raw gut-wrenching reaction that a well-placed final fantasy theme has. Old Boy is part of a cluster of really good Korean films that dissect vengeance in a way that a lot of Western directors are too close-minded and caught up in themselves to ever manage.
4. 4. Welcome to Dongmakgol
It’s difficult to describe the unbelievable wonder of this film. It uses the most vivid colours of anything except Hobbiton in the Lord of the Rings Films and Yeo-il should be up there as one of the greatest characters in film history. Quite simply, it’s surreal. Watching Dongmakgol is like staring at a Dali painting for 2 hours. It feels more real than reality, and although you are fully aware of what you saw, you feel almost like someone’s just banged you on the head or sneaked you acid rather than sat you down in front of a film.
5. 5. Dumplings
Chinese films have a tendency to be to Asian cinema what English films are to the West. Because Korean and Japanese films have such an emphasis on style, the realism approach seems particularly gritty and almost dry in comparison. Note that I don’t mean dry in the boring sense, I mean it more in the sense that they’re slow, something I happen to enjoy. A large number of films that come out of China focus on history and legend, particularly the three kingdoms era, because it’s such a rich soup of interestingness and this focus on realism is taken over into their fictional films such as Dumplings. Every scene feels like it’s just down the road, every object feels like you could pick it up and hold it. Nothing is hidden from the viewer, and to go along with this the story is kept simple and uncomplicated as well.
With my Western head on for a moment, I think Chinese films are the hardest to get on with. There’s something linguistically comfortable about Japanese, it makes sense to an English ear because there are no uncomfortable letter combinations or harsh/awkward sounds. Japanese is beautifully mathematical in construction and easily converted to English. Korean is a little more awkward, it has sounds that European languages don’t and that can therefore be a little uncomfortable on first listening. Because language is obviously so much part of film, it can be very important to be able to listen to people speaking without trouble but as the popularity of Gang-nam style shows, Korean very quickly becomes palatable to the English speaking ear. Chinese however is like the other end of the scale and, particularly where a film is in Cantonese and not Mandarin, can cast a slightly negative air on watching the film to the uninitiated.
Top 10 Korean films to watch next:
1. Sympathy for Mr Vengeance
2. Lady vengeance
4. I saw the Devil
5. Save the Green planet
7. A bittersweet life
8. Brotherhood (Taegukgi)
9. The Host
10. Blood Rain
Top 10 Japanese films to watch next:
4. Ichi the Killer
5. Visitor Q (not for the faint hearted and when I say that, I really mean it.)
6. Happiness of the katakuris
7. Cold fish
8. My Neighbour Totoro
Top 10 Chinese Films:
3. Shinjuku incident
4. In the mood for love
6. Red cliff
7. Three kingdoms
8. Battle of Wits
9. Infernal affairs
10. City of Life and Death
And with that, I bid you adieu.